The Voyage of the Whale Ship Esk in 1816

ESKebookFor several years now I’ve been researching the life and work of William Scoresby Jr., an early nineteenth-century whaler and Arctic explorer who sailed from Whitby, and Liverpool. Of course this has on the whole been a spare time project, and one that is quite a departure from my academic background in American literature, and crime fiction. It has taken quite a while to reach the point where I feel confident about publishing on the subject. I’m working on a full-length book about Scoresby, but in the mean time I have written and self-published a short (~10,000 words) book-let on his once famous voyage of 1816, a voyage which could very easily have ended in tragedy and disaster.

This booklet is available as a print copy from Amazon and in due course as an ebook from all the usual outlets and in all the usual formats. In the mean time your one stop shop for the ebook in the right format for you is Smashwords. The cover image is by mixed media artist Caroline Hack, from an original illustration by Scoresby himself.

The Holderness Whale: Exhibition at Burton Constable

BCBT01-300x203I first met artist Caroline Hack at the “Moby Dick on the Mersey” marathon read I organised in Liverpool in 2013. We’ve since worked together on a little book about the 1816 voyage of the Whitby whale ship Esk. Back in 2013 Caroline was already established with a back catalogue of work related to whales and historic whaling and she is currently Artist in Residence at Burton Constable Hall in East Yorkshire, where there is a famous skeleton of a Sperm Whale, washed up on the Holderness coast at Tunstall in 1825. This skeleton featured first in Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) and later, via Beale, in Moby-Dick (1851) itself.

Caroline has built an exhibition with this skeleton–now in the stables–as its centrepiece, starting from Saturday March 26. If you’re in the area the hall and grounds themselves are a good day out anyway, but this exhibition just makes it all the more worthwhile. Caroline’s work with printed and sewn fabrics is both reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, and starkly corporeal in its use of whale bones and historic objects.

The exhibition runs from Easter Saturday to Thursday 28 April 2016. Opening Times: 11am – 5pm, seven days per week (the hall itself is not open on Fridays). The project is funded by the Arts Council England via Grants for the Arts and the Friends of Burton Constable.

See more of Caroline’s work at

William Scoresby Jr. in Liverpool

Greenland Street Sign

I’ve been working for a while now on a book about William Scoresby Jr. and his 1822 voyage to Greenland, though with other work to do, progress has been slow.

By 1820, Arctic whaling was in decline in Liverpool, and it stopped altogether after the 1823 season, but in the late eighteenth century it was big business.  Evidence of its significance exists even today in the street name “Greenland Street”, which runs perpendicular to the Mersey, and parallel with Parliament Street. It is divided now by modern development, but it used to connect up with what was then the southern end of the Queen’s Dock. Greenland Street is now home to Camp and Furnace and an ice-cream van depot, among other things. It seems likely, given the name of the street, that the oil works that stood by the Queen’s Dock in the late eighteenth century and the first two decades of the nineteenth, serviced a mixed industrial area of bone cutters, stay makers and warehousing, centred there. In the 1780s, when Liverpool whaling was at its peak, Greenland Street would have been on the edge of town. I suspect it was a good thing that it would also have been downwind of the city most of the time.

Church of St. James

The area around Greenland Street must have been an unpleasant place to live, but quite a few whaleship captains did just that. Between about 1818 and 1825, Scoresby himself lived a quarter of a mile up the hill, on the then relatively new development of Upper Stanhope Street. Very few of the buildings that Scoresby would have known now exist, apart from the church of St. James (above) and possibly the once rather grand, but now sorry-looking house below. Gore’s Directory suggests he lived at number seven, so not very far from this derelict remnant. On foot, he could have been at the Queen’s Dock in ten minutes.

Upper Stanhope Street

Moby Dick on the Mersey, a Marathon Reading in Liverpool

This is going to be keeping me busy for a while. Moby Dick on the Mersey is a marathon reading of Melville’s famous novel, taking place at the Merseyside Maritime Museum from the 4th to the 6th of May 2013. I am organising it through the University of Liverpool’s department of Continuing Education, where I look after courses in English. The reading will take over 130 readers 26 hours, and we are arranging other events alongside it, including a series of talks and lectures about Liverpool and whaling, Herman Melville, and the novel itself. With a bit of luck we will also have a Moby Dick ale brewed for refreshment.

How to Draw With Light

The other day I came across some images from Life Magazine, showing Picasso drawing with light. It looked like a fun project, and since my daughter is currently studying light at school, I persuaded her to play along. The result is above. A few people have asked how we did it so I thought I would write a brief “How to”. It’s not difficult, but you will need some specific equipment to make this work.

What you will need:

  • A camera with manual controls. Specifically, you must be able to control the shutter speed, and preferably also switch off the autofocus.
  • Some sort of off-camera flash. I used another camera.
  • A completely dark room.
  • A willing assistant.
  • A torch or other light source.
  • A certain amount of patience. We didn’t get this right first time.


You need to put a camera on a tripod, or some sort of stable surface, and set the exposure to, say, 10 seconds, or however long you think you will need. Manually focus on the subject. It helps if you can do this so that the camera doesn’t ‘hunt’ while it tries to find something to focus on. It also helps to set the ‘ISO’ ‘film speed’ number, rather than leave it on Auto. We settled on ISO 1600, but you will need to experiment with your setup.

Get your off camera flash ready. You will need to experiment with placing it to get the best result. In the image above the flash came from below and to the right, casting a nice big shadow on the wall. If you don’t have a flash gun of some kind, you can use another camera. You’ll need to experiment with making that work. Some cameras use a red light to assist the autofocus, while others strobe the flash. You need to switch all that off somehow.

Switch off all the lights, and in darkness, open the shutter. At this point the subject waves the light about. Arrange beforehand where your subject’s hand will stop. When she or he reaches that point, fire the flash, which exposes the rest of the room. Everyone then holds still until the shutter closes.

It took some experimenting to get the ISO right, and the positioning of the flash, but most important is to communicate while the shutter is open and you are floundering around in the dark. If we do it again we’ll use a less bright light I think. We had a lot of fun with this experiment, and I think the picture has come out pretty well. To see what is possible when a great photographer and a great artist come together to do this, take a look at the efforts of Gjon Mili and Pablo Picasso below. We had to experiment a lot to get this right, but of course in 1949, they were working with film.

More Picasso images at Retronaut.

Clouds Gathering

So the summer is almost over and I thought it might be useful to put down, in public, what I’m planning to get done this autumn. I’ve never done this kind of thing before, so deep breath:

  • Finish off writing entries for the 100 American Crime Writers and 100 British Crime Writers books which I handed over to Steven Powell and Esme Miskimmin when I was at a low ebb late in 2009. Steve has put a lot of work into the Venetian Vase blog, and it’s becoming quite a nice thing.
  • Teaching–among other things–a course on the History of American Ideas (up to about 1865) at the University of Liverpool.
  • Overseeing English courses in Continuing Education at the University of Liverpool.
  • Once the crime fiction pieces are done I’m planning to get back to the Scoresby project, finish off my outline, and start writing. Very excited about this.
  • I’m also going to revisit my PhD thesis on Raymond Chandler. I think there’s a book in there somewhere, and dammit I aim to find it.
  • Put together some teaching materials in the form of a series of short non-fiction e-books. This is partly because I need to get the material together, and partly because I want a trial run to see how e-books work from a production point of view. I’m probably going to begin with a short annotated and introduced collection of Edgar Allan Poe Tales, to go with my Poe lecture. There will be Melville and Thoreau material coming along too, if all goes well.
  • Start working on a series of short pieces on researching and writing essays and articles, to go with a study skills/composition course.
  • And somewhere, somehow, I need to think about what happens when my contract at Liverpool ends in January. There will be some occasional teaching, but I’ll need more work. A return to freelancing? We’ll see.

No promises, but those are the plans. There are a lot of ‘starts’ there, so it will be interesting to see which ones work out.

Digitisation, Copyright, and the British PhD Thesis

In the autumn of 1997 I submitted a PhD thesis, with the snappy title Modernity and Identity in the Detective Novels of Raymond Chandler, for assessment at Newcastle University. Some time later, after it had been examined, copies were deposited in the university library in Newcastle, and at the British Library. In the days of paper and hard covers nobody gave a second thought to handing them over. Now though there is a plan to digitise and make available online every British PhD thesis written since the 1600s. I am happy to be included in the scheme, but I have misgivings.

The vast majority of PhDs–mine included no doubt–lie unopened and unread in one of the British Library’s vast warehouses. In truth, few are worth reading in their raw form, though many are later rewritten as books. PhD theses are pedantic and technical, written for the examiners to prove the writer’s ability to corral a set of knowledge and sustain an argument. Books are written for their audience, whoever that may be, but PhD theses are no fun at all. They are written to meet a set of academic requirements, not for wide public consumption or the all-seeing eyes of Google and Bing.

It is natural to be a little bit afraid of having such a stunted, constrained, and raw piece of work on display, but the real issue here is one of choice. What I find irksome is the assumption that everyone will be happy to have work published online even though it was never intended for publication. This is work some writers may no longer endorse, or feel comfortable about. There is a way to opt out, but it depends on authors knowing they are involved in the first place, and university libraries do not seem to feel obliged to tell them. There is also the question of whether the choice needs to be a binary one. Why have PhD authors not been given the chance to license their work, allowing different levels of freedom to share and copy, rather than just the option to remove their work from the digitisation scheme?

The current copyright system clearly doesn’t work well with this new environment in which vast quantities of data are being made public, and the Library’s attempts to reassure with talk of copyright agreements, and tracking the recipients of downloads, miss the point entirely. Since most authors have not granted permission for this kind of distribution it is possible that the participating libraries themselves are the primary copyright abusers, but in any case, hard-line copyright statements are not really in the spirit of open access.

The expectation of wide availability will change the nature of the PhD thesis, and that is probably a good thing. In an open access environment there needs to be a reconsideration of who this work is for. But before that can happen we need to find a more sensible way of licensing this material, perhaps using Creative Commons licenses on all new PhDs as a matter of course. Trying to ignore the issue (and the rights holders), and hoping for the best, as the British Library seems to be doing, is not good enough. Like most people in this situation I don’t mind my thesis being part of the process, and I will be glad to get hold of an electronic copy when it becomes freely available. Even so, it would have been nice to be asked first.

The Reader Organisation New Website

Over the last six months I’ve been working at The Reader Organisation developing their web presence and redesigning the website. The new site went live on Friday and although there is still work to do to bring all of the organisation’s projects into the one site, it’s working out pretty well so far. Take a look here. Now for a redesign of the blog.

Cain's Revisions and the Temporal Paradox

Over the last week or so I’ve been working on the revisions I had to make to Cain’s: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint. Although the amount of writing and revising wasn’t much in the scheme of things, it wasn’t easy. When you plan and write a book, you have an idea in your head of what is going to be in it and to some extent what order it will take. The memory of writing it is mixed up with all the memories of the time in which it is written, so returning to it at a late stage with new information feels a bit like going back in time and meeting with yourself to discuss the future. As every time traveller knows, that’s not good.

What has been useful though is having the chance to reflect on the events not only of the last few months, but further back. We read the past from the point of view of the present after all. This is a brewery and a city with a long history that includes many events like this. Rewriting the story has allowed me to get in perspective what a great achievement it was for Robert Cain to make the brewery a success in the first place, but also to think about the idea that over 200 years of history it is the myths and stories that linger.

As of today the work is done and the book should be on the shelves in about a month. I am very keen to have a real copy of the finished book in my hand but I very much doubt that this story, or even this part of the story, is over.

Random Excuse Generator

For those of us with a professional interest in procrastination theory the news from Australia that Henry Hoke’s Random Excuse Generator has been recreated brings a welcome injection of optimism amid falling financial markets, slipped deadlines, and stumbling projects. This short film produced by Mark Thomson, Research Director at the Institute for Backyard Studies, explains: